Concluding (for now) my series of interviews with songwriters of my acquaintance, Here’s Kenny Mackay, of Isaac Brutal and the Trailer Trash Express fame. Kenny tends to have his own take on stuff…
Incidentally, if you are a songwriter who thinks your answers to these questions would be illuminating, thought-provoking or just plain out there, get in touch.
Music or words first? Or a bit of both?
I’m possibly sneaking in here under false pretences as I don’t think I’d really call myself a songwriter. The majority of my ‘songs’ are instrumental and any that do have lyrics, the lyrics are either written by someone else, or co-written with someone else. If it’s the former, I have zero interest in what they are and they’re basically just something that’s in there to stop the listener getting bored between the guitar solos! If it’s the latter, I’ll obviously take a bit more interest, but the lyrics are still secondary to the music.
Do you use a particular instrument to compose with, e.g. a favourite guitar; if you use piano/keyboard and guitar for different songs, do they produce different results?
I have two methods of composition. The first is a fairly standard knock it out on the guitar. The second is probably a bit less conventional in that I use a PS2 and Music 3000, which is a sample based music production ‘game’. Originally I had a Playstation and Music 2000, but I upgraded! Unfortunately Music 3000 isn’t a new version of the Codemasters classic, it just happens to have a similar name. But it was only 1p from Amazon! I know, Music 2000 will also work on the PS2, but hey, it’s not the 90s any more! But for both methods it’s the same building block philosophy – start off with one riff you like and keep piling things on top of it until it explodes!!!
Some songwriters talk about the process as if it’s like catching something that was there already, out there in the ether – as if the song was just waiting to be pulled in. Does it ever feel like that to you, or is the process much more mechanical for you?
‘Out there in the ether’? Sounds like it was something they might have heard on the radio and ‘appropriated’! [Yeah, I know. It’s a worry though, isn’t it? ACF] Maybe for a singer-songwriter with a guitar or piano, but for me it’s like one of those 2000 piece jigsaw puzzles of baked beans. Most of the bits look pretty much the same, but they all have a correct position in the puzzle. For me, all the various elements of a song have to go in the correct place. And that takes time. Sometimes a LOT of time! And I only have one rule: if it sounds like it could be done by Oasis, then it’s straight in the bin!
Name an influence on your songs that maybe wouldn’t be obvious to most of your fans.
Not sure I really have any fans. Who even heard, say, Dwarf Factory‘s Doom Stalks Your Boogaloo or Lunar Conquistadors‘ Hotwired Into The Cosmos? (Both great albums, possibly due a re-release?) But I think all my influences are glaringly obvious – minimalism, free jazz, prog rock, Krautrock, Japanese noise merchants, post rock, electric Miles, the Paisley Underground, Neil Young, Television, Springsteen, Tom Petty, black metal!!! I had a spell in hospital in 2001, and about the only radio station I could get a decent reception on was Beat 106. Now maybe it was the drugs, but I started listening to a lot of dancey type music and I really got into trance! So I’ll go with Sven Vath! Although now I mention it, that sounds glaringly obvious too!
Do you always write with your own (or your lead singer’s) voice in mind, or have you ever written for someone else? How did it turn out?
I can fairly safely say that whenever I have written lyrics, the potential singer plays no part in it! As long as they work on the page, then that works for me! And if anyone’s looking for me to write lyrics for them, then they should probably call it a day!
Do you ever revise your songs after you’ve started performing them, or are they pretty much fixed?
I think of everything as a work in progress. But then I tend to favour some degree of improvisation, particularly during live performances. That’s the jazz influence! However, most musicians are more like classical musicians, preferring all the bits to be in exactly the same place as they were last time and will be the next time. Things get too loose, they get edgy! And edgy musicians are a liability! Although I’m sure they’d say the same about me!
Name three favourite songwriters of yours.
For all the weird shit music I listen to, it’s hard to go outside the conventional idea of the songwriter. A solo artist who always gets lone billing, or maybe even with a band – Someone and the Somethings. Maybe because unless it’s one of those obvious guys (and gals), you don’t really know who’s a songwriter. There might also be other factors. My favourite band of all time is Television. Tom Verlaine wrote all the songs. But Tom Verlaine’s solo work is slightly less spectacular. So we have to assume that it’s not the songs that were great, it’s the band that made them great. And come on, in this age of CD booklets with tiny writing and digital downloads, who really knows who wrote what! What was the question again? Three songwriters. 1) Bruce Springsteen. 2) Neil Young. 3) Don van Vliet. I did seriously consider putting Nick Cave in there, but strip out The Bad Seeds and I’m not sure if those songs are going to sound so good. And apparently every single note of every single Captain Beefheart record was written down. Seems it’s easier to go outside the conventional idea of the songwriter than I thought!
Kenny’s work features on the latest Isaac Brutal CD, Night of the Living Trailer Trash. He also features in one of my own favourite live recordings of recent years: